News / Asia

India Struggles to Bridge Economic Gap

A homeless Indian woman begs on a bridge in Mumbai (file photo)
A homeless Indian woman begs on a bridge in Mumbai (file photo)
Anjana Pasricha

Two decades ago, India opened up its tightly regulated economy, unleashing a wave of reforms that transformed the country and put it in the league of the world's fastest growing economies. But many consider the job only partially complete and say the South Asian country needs to bridge the gap between a prosperous middle class and the millions of people who still grapple with poverty.

Dramatic shift

Rajeev Nanda, a software professional, was among a wave of young people who migrated to the United States in the 1980s, because of a lack of job opportunities at home. In 2001, a decade after India opened its socialist-style economy, he returned to establish an office in Bangalore for the U.S.-based company that employed him.

Nanda found a country dramatically different from the one he had left 12 years before.

“When we went, it was a one-way ticket [to the U.S.," explained Nanda. "Then the economy opened up. The opportunities created a different mindset. Suddenly there was a lot of hope and lot of excitement in the air.”

Financial woes

The liberalization drive launched in 1991 came at a time when India was confronting a crisis. It was on the verge of defaulting on its international debt.

Manmohan Singh (file photo)
Manmohan Singh (file photo)

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - then the country’s finance minister - lifted restrictions on foreign investors, relaxed stifling controls on domestic industry and slashed taxes.

The results were soon evident. India’s economy became the world’s second fastest-growing economy, after China. Led by a thriving information-technology sector, the services sector boomed. Manufacturing industries expanded. Exports flourished. A huge middle class emerged.

Economic boom

The head of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Rajiv Kumar, says the unshackling of the private sector created the economic boom.

“The most important thing in my view is to have freed the Indian entrepreneurial spirit, which is its traditional strength. It had been chained and caged prior to 1991 in the ideology of central planning and socialism etc,” Kumar said.

But, 20 years later, analysts say India’s economic revolution is only partially complete. And, some people worry that it is running out of steam.

For years, investors have waited for a second wave of reforms to open up sectors which are still tightly regulated, such as retail and insurance. Businesses grapple with lack of infrastructure, as everything from power generation to the transportation network falls short. Several Indian companies are investing overseas, rather than at home where they are deterred by problems such as acquiring land for factories.

Unequal growth

But economists say even more pressing is the problem of unequal growth. While one half of the country prospers, the other half continues to grapple with poverty. In the cities, swank, gated residential complexes and gleaming shopping malls contrast with sprawling urban slums.

Poverty is rampant in many backward, rural regions. A little more than 40 percent of the people - about 450 million - live on less than $2 a day.

P. Chidambaram (file photo)
P. Chidambaram (file photo)

Top Indian officials are confident the problem can be addressed by even faster growth. Among them is Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who was formerly finance minister.

“Our biggest failure is that the pace of reduction of poverty has not been fast enough, that the growth of employment has not been fast enough," Chidambaram said. "The pace of reduction of poverty must pick up and that can only happen if growth averages over eight percent and is sustained at nine percent for several years.”

But there are worries that brisk economic growth may not be enough to address problems such as lack of access to schooling and health care for millions of Indians. Rates of malnourishment and infant mortality are among the worst in the world. Millions of children are still unschooled.

Effective governance

A top Indian economist, Swaminathan Aiyar, blames lack of effective governance for such problems.

“It is not enough to say there is some economic growth. I mean what is the condition of your schools? What is the condition of your public health? What is the condition of government services in general? That is the biggest problem that is crying out,” noted Aiyar.

Analysts also say that, in the past year, economic issues have been put on the back burner as the government focuses its energies on fighting allegations of huge official corruption. They say this has led to a policy paralysis in the government.

New focus

Minister Chidambaram says the country needs to put the focus back on the economy to realize its full potential.

“The center stage must once again be restored to growth, to change, to reforms, better governance. So the blips you see today in declining investment or more foreign outward investment, all these can be resolved…..and then outpace even China, that’s not impossible, people are beginning to talk about outpacing China,”  Chidambaram said.

Rajeev Nanda says that, two decades after liberalization, most professionals would rather stay in India than migrate to Western countries.

“In the last few years, I have seen even a reverse, where people do not want to go. They are simply having a better life, better opportunities right here,” Nanda said.

Economists say the challenge in the coming years will be to bridge the gap between the middle class and the poor, so that those living now in urban slums and the countryside can echo the same sentiment.

You May Like

Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity

October 3 is a public holiday, marking the day in 1990 when East Germany and West Germany reunited More

Analysts: Russia's Syria Strikes Shake Regional Powers

If Moscow bolsters Assad, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries may feel obliged to step in More

Video Innovative Nano-Tech Water Filter Prevents Disease

It can absorb contaminants like copper, bacteria, viruses and pesticides, says Askwar Hilonga, who has been successfully trying out his product in Arusha More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs